“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
I finally found some free time today and felt like kicking back with a smooth 70s flick. I got upset scrolling though Netflix for a while at what seemed like no strong titles anymore, so I decided to stick it to the system and find a movie through shady means. I settled on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the 1977 extraterrestrial epic often hailed as a classic. This is a movie whose title I’ve heard thrown around a lot, particularly by science fiction fans, and I figure you can’t go wrong with Spielberg, so I revved up the streaming sites and gave the movie a shot for the first time. While it didn’t blow my mind by any means, I was pretty pleased with the film and would consider it a significant work of the sci-fi canon.
You get the mark of Steven Spielberg all over this movie. As a kid seeing movies like ET, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, I began to equate the Spielberg style with what a normal movie looks like. It became a familiarity for me, as if this is what a blockbuster is supposed to be. After seeing more recent movies like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, it’s clear that Spielberg has picked up a more modern style, so this return to form was a cool experience to see. If there’s one thing to say about his early movies, it’s that they did special effects beautifully. Even seeing the movie today, the spaceships in Close Encounters are given such a focus and gravity that they seem mesmerizing. There’s also this distinct quality to his protagonists where they are almost the “everyman” but seem just a bit off due to a touch of silly dialogue. Everything is pretty formulaic, but it’s so textbook that you feel familiar and cozy watching a Spielberg movie, especially an early work such as this where you know he was still establishing this formula that later directors would come to adopt. It doesn’t age perfectly in the end, but it’s still very effective.
A lot of people have called Close Encounters a daring movie and an undisputed classic, but I didn’t think of it so highly. It’s clear that seeing the movie in 2016 probably drops a bit of necessary perspective, but it’s still a flawed movie in a lot of ways. The plot jumps around a lot, and while this does create an epic sort of mood for the film, it feels choppy and boring at times. I didn’t find the protagonist very likable either, and I just wasn’t that invested in a lot of the science mumbo-jumbo that fills up quite a bit of the run time. I really admire the movie for what it builds to, the flawless final scene, but it’s hard to overlook some poor pacing that it takes to get there. It’s a good movie, but I wouldn’t call it one of the best in the genre.
That being said, the finale of the film is just wonderful. Once you make it through a lot of droning about, you can’t help but glue your eyes to the screen when that massive spaceship makes its descent. Every character on the screen is just as mesmerized as you are, and you have absolutely no idea how this is all going to play out. The musical sequence where the humans learn to communicate with the aliens is playful and stunning at the same time. It really begs the question: what should we think about extraterrestrials? What do we say to them? This scene is a cinematic gem that raises these important questions with some great special effects to keep you invested. The way all the characters come together for this final encounter – it’s a strong ending that would leave any viewer satisfied.
I respect Steven Spielberg tremendously for setting the blockbuster standard in the 1970s and beyond, even if Close Encounters may rank among his lower tier for me. My major problem was really just a tedious plot and some dull characters that take up too much time, but the movie pays off wonderfully when it finally gives you the encounter you’ve been waiting for. As also exemplified in Jaws, Spielberg is a master of restraint, and the payoff makes this movie well worth watching. Fans of the genre will definitely appreciate Close Encounters and have probably already seen it numerous times. It makes some really strong choices and demonstrates Spielberg’s technical strength as a director that we would continue to enjoy for decades to come.
Films Left to Watch: 949